fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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plenty of water and willing fish, and a return to Crooked Creek, part two

If you missed it, Part One can be found here.

South of Hot Creek as Hwy 395 skirts the eastern shore of Crowley Lake, the landscape shifts from the flat topography of the Long Valley Caldera to small hills dotted by decomposing granite boulders. This glacial till, an accumulation of unsorted glacial sediment, begins to dominate the scenery to the east. A few minutes later, a flat spot to the west marks Toms Place and shelter for the weekend, Tom’s Place Resort.

This is a place that sits apart from time. It must have been a sight welcomed by travelers when it was built in 1919. A small seven-room lodge, twelve cabins, and a requisite general store and café sit between the trees, rustic and worn, now blend into the surroundings. After many return visits, it’s home away from home.

Each of our two cabins will house six men of a certain age and prone to snoring. I arrive early to get my pick of a bed against an outside wall.

Fishmaster John – the organizer of this trip – is already there. Cabin 25 is open, guests in cabin 26 have yet to check out. I claim my bed, unload my gear. History hangs in the air and little has changed save for new vinyl flooring that replaced cabin’s old indoor/outdoor carpet. True to its rustic theme, the sagging subfloor was left in place and the new flooring follows its uneven contours. I sit down to lunch. John heads out to fish the Owens River.

I spend time listening to what I don’t hear. Though near to the highway, the periodic drone of a passing car quickly dissipates. Soon it’s overwhelmed by the whoosh of wind through tree boughs and the staccato songs of birds and insects. Theirs is the song of late summer, when direct sun can still be uncomfortably warm but the nights cool enough to make it clear fall is around the corner.

Rock Creek

Early morning, looking upstream on Rock Creek.

Others of our group arrive over the next few hours. The first to arrive are Ron aka “Rags”, John K. (our wine steward), Richard, Dave, Gerry, Terry, and Wayne, accompanied by Mike, a veteran in the club’s Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program. Kirby the Raffle Dude wanders in, Tenkara rod in hand. His long-time partners, Fred and Greg – the guests who had yet to check out –unlock cabin 26. It’s become a habit among those three to arrive a few days early, allowing time to fall into a well-established routine of eat-fish-nap-eat.

There’s supposed to be fifteen of us, eleven in the two cabins, two in the lodge, and one in another, smaller cabin. That’s when the unthinkable is mentioned. Where’s Brewmeister Ron? Concerned comments rise. He usually arrives during the early afternoon. Now it’s closer to evening than afternoon.

Ron and his home-brewed beer arrive well before dinner but long after pessimistic speculation that we might have to resort to mass-manufactured brews. The group complete, we settle into camping chairs to lie about the fish caught earlier in the day and our hopes for tomorrow. Gerry serves up two lasagnas, both of which disappear before pies and cheesecake materialize in their place.

It’s the little things –and folks who attend –that make this outing what it is. How a trip-long debate pitting the Davy Knot against the Clinch cumulates in a spontaneous experiment that involves Wayne tying both knots on a single strand of monofilament, then pulling both ends until one fails. (The Clinch Knot would fail about 90% of the time.) Or, the homemade food that tastes so much better with a side of the outdoors. The comradery that comes with a common interest and the fellowship found in failing to land that one trout that took too many casts to fool.

Little Lakes Valley Trail

The Little Lakes Valley Trail after cresting the first rise. It continues into the far off mountains.

The long shadows of sunset merge to into the darkness of the night. When conversation wanes the quiet breath of nature can be heard around us. No one’s checking the clock, but almost in unison we begin to wrap up conversations and head to bed.

The morning is the same, in reverse. The first noise arises from a fumbling with an unfamiliar coffeemaker. It’s cold in the early sun. We’re wearing jackets that won’t be worn the rest of the day. Convenience rules the breakfast choices: mostly muffins and cereal. There’s envy rather than criticism of the two guys who choose cheesecake.

The only plan today is to fish. The night before Fishmaster John and I had discussed heading up to the Mosquito Flat Trailhead. He and I did the same the last time I was on this trip. The trailhead starts at 10,300 feet and goes up from there but we both appreciate stopping every once and a while as we make our way to Mack Lake. The lake is only about 200 feet higher but the trail, which parallels Rock Creek, climbs substantially higher before descending again. John veers off the trail to find the lake’s inlet, and I follow.

Small seasonal creeks still soak the ground that’d normally be dry this time of year. John heads for the inlet. I’m heading upstream.

It’s one of those bright days that can only be experienced at higher elevations. Made infinitely better by a lack of human influence. Little Lakes Valley rests between a range of peaks to the north and south. They’re still frosted with snow. High-Sierra granite dominates the landscape. Where it doesn’t, the land is green.

Mack Lake

Looking down Rock Creek, toward the inlet to Mack Lake.

The creek here butts up against the bottom of the southern side of the valley. It’s almost impossible to pick one of the riffles, plunge pools, or tailouts that’ll christen my new Tenkara rod. (A Japanese fly rod, if you will, without a reel.) It takes some time to get accustomed to the casting. My left hand keeps reaching for the reel that’s not there. The fish are there. Fingerlings too small strike nearly every drift of my fly. I move upstream to a promising pocket and my educated guess is rewarded with a small but vibrant brook trout. This is a pattern repeated most of the morning as John and I leapfrog each other as we head upstream toward Marsh and Heart lakes.

As on most streams, creeks, or river, I find one stretch where I just know trout should be. Here it’s a long riffle that ends before a small plunge. The buffer, just in front of the rocks at the end of the run, is what catches my attention. I cast and drift the fly, starting near the bank in front of me and repeat, working towards the opposite bank.

Disappointment begins to eat at my confidence. Fly fishing isn’t for the pessimist. It requires work, even for the smallest of unseen fish. Knowledge is one thing but optimism drives us.

Brook Trout

A prime example of a wild Rock Creek brook trout.

After too many casts and now almost inattentive, I make one more to a far seam. A splash at my fly and my optimism is replenished. It feels like a decent fish, perhaps a ten-plus inch brook trout. But hooking trout in moving water, even small streams, can be misleading. Without a reel, I have to step back, raise the rod high, then grab the line. In a creek well known for a vast population of brook trout, I’ve found Salmo trutta, a brown trout. It looks nicer than most of the brookies, which tend to always look hungry. This brown trout, in contrast, looks muscular and well fed.

It’s a nice stroll down hill when John and I leave. It’s late morning and the parking has filled to capacity as day hikers begin their ascent. We talk of exploring Deadman Creek east of the highway. The day before, I fished to the west of the highway, closer to its headwaters.

It’s the special regulations that piqued our interest in that section of Deadman Creek: limited take of two fish, each of which must be at least 18 inches in length, with gear restricted to artificial lures and flies with single, barbless hooks. Clearly there’d be no need for such regulations of big fish weren’t there.

We both made the short trip there and explored different sections. When I was able to squeeze through the brush lining the banks, I found a few small fish. It only dawned on me later that the special regulations were likely to protect spawning fish, since Deadman Creek is the main feeder stream of Upper Owens River, up which fish from Crowley Lake come to reproduce. It wasn’t time wasted; Forest Service roads look me along ridges separating sizable canyons, red, dry and dotted with pine trees and scrub. At the crest are views of the Long Valley Caldera.

The promise of cold beer and another good meal eventually calls all of us back to Toms Place. Appetites sharpened by a long day of hiking, fishing, and simply being outdoors, we dug into Wayne’s taco casserole, more pie and more cheesecake. Before, during, and after, the great knot debate rages on.

Tomorrow the fishing would on stillwater. Water that would be too still.

Part Three can be found here.

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quick note (or, yes, I haven’t been fishing)

I sit down tentatively in front of the keyboard, the one-eyed monster stares back, unblinking. The view out the window reminds me that midsummer has passed and for the first time in a month I’m fully aware of just how much fishing I’ve missed. It’s a long time before the end of the season, and there should be opportunity to haunt favorite fishy places. But there’s no making up for time lost.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything just for fun. The prospect of doing so is exciting but a bit terrifying. I’ve been challenged the last month or so by genetics that required minor surgery on my left hand, not my casting hand, thank goodness. Apparently I inherited from some long-forgotten Northern European ancestor the necessary components to develop Dupuytren’s contracture. After outpatient surgery, I was in a brace for two weeks. There was no keyboarding at 70 words per minute. But life didn’t sit still. Work piled up. I was in the middle of three different website projects as well as my regular job. It’s taken weeks just to get back to par. To the three readers still left, I’m sorry for the absence.

My forced downtime did not go to waste. Karen and I spent a weekend in Chico; no fishing, just lots of beer tasting at the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Across America.

The weekends this month are already full with life’s non-fishing activities and that’s just fine. Given that California’s in the middle of a horrendous drought, the trout have more important things to do than ignore my fly as it drifts by. Vegetation has become tinder for fires. It’s anyone’s guess if this winter will put a dent in the drought. The recent reports of warm water game fish and mammals appearing in the ocean off the California coast (mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna, pilot and Bryde’s whales) and the recent humidity and showers could be the tea leaves predicting El Niño is developing. However, expectations have recently changed, and it may be a weak event.

In the meantime, you’ll find me preparing for the time opportunity presents itself.


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will travel for food: Show Dogs & Cellarmakers Brewing

I do enjoy living in California. I love our many outdoor options. I live in a suburb of the Bay Area, in a balance of choice and means. But I have a love/hate relationship with our “big city,” San Francisco.

San Francisco was the seventh most visited city in the United States last year, for good reason — cool summers of fog-kissed sunshine, a history that lives on through landmarks such Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Coit Tower and Fisherman’s Wharf. Lending to its picturesque quality are steep rolling hills patrolled by cable cars and dotted by a mix of architecture styles such as Italianate, Mission, Queen Anne, Stick/Eastlake, Craftsman, Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. Parks are sprinkled about, including the Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden and the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Culture abounds with art museums and performing arts. The sciences are represented at the California Academy of Sciences, the Morrison Planetarium and Steinhart Aquarium.

Wandering through neighborhoods like North Beach, Chinatown, Telegraph Hill and SoMa on a sunny day rank among some of my favorite experiences in The City. Christmas can be made more special with a visit to Union Square and a walk by Macy’s holiday windows displaying SPCA cats and dogs looking for forever homes. Personally, I enjoy carspotting and rarely is there not a sighting of a Ferrari or Tesla or the occasional Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls Royce or Pagini. (BMWs, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes and Porsches are too commonplace.)

San Francisco is also most densely inhabited large city in our state and the second-most densely populated major city in the United States; second only to New York City. High-rise office buildings blot out the sky and create dark canyons that can be 10 degrees cooler. Our visit last weekend was marked by warmish temperatures, which likely gave rise to the rather pungent odors one might expect during a rainless winter.

Some people wanted champagne and caviar when they should have had beer and hot dogs. - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Some people wanted champagne and caviar when they should have had beer and hot dogs.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

But we will travel for food, which lured us once again across the Bay. Intellectually, I understand the need for and benefits of mass transit; but deep inside I harbor an irrational fear of missing a scheduled stop. (Yes, I know there will be another bus or train, but that means giving up control of my schedule.) However, I’ve become accustomed to the hour-long ferry ride and have recently adopted the mantra “walking is good.”

Walk we did. To get where we were going, we’d skirt the Tenderloin just above SoMa. The situational awareness I’ve been working on, unfortunately, meant I wouldn’t miss that guy relieving himself in the gutter on Turk Street. More than once we walked through a repellent cloud of “skunk” originating from green stuff, not the black and white animal.

In truth, it was more akin to hiking for food and beer, and lunch at Show Dogs Fine Sausages was the reward on the first leg. House-made hot dogs, sausages and condiments, and beer on tap. What’s not to love? And love it we did. Maximizing our opportunity to taste Show Dogs’ offerings, we split a House Maple Pork sausage and Fried Chicken Sandwich, a pint of 21st Amendment’s seasonal Fireside Chat — a nice, rich and semi-dark English-style ale tweaked with spices — and a side of fries. The maple pork sausage was an experience I’d gladly repeat, even without the sprinkling of bacon. The proportion of maple to pork was perfect. Think of that time at breakfast when your sausage rolled into a bit of syrup. The twist for me was the deliciousness of the fried chicken sandwich, it was outstanding. Sure, it’s fried, but the house-made lemon cayenne aioli, coleslaw, pickled ginger and well-matched bun make it something quite special. The fries weren’t as special, but were perked up by the house-made habanero ketchup.

We’d walk another mile or so to pick up something Karen had ordered, then it’d be another mile to Cellarmaker Brewing Co.’s taproom. But it was one o’clock, and the taproom wouldn’t open until two. So, without thinking, began to head to the Ferry Building.

A few blocks later Karen thought to check the ferry schedule. The next ferry wouldn’t leave until 3:45 p.m. Apparently, God wants us to have beer. And Cellarmaker delivered.

Cellarmaker is small, with a ten-barrel brewery and a twelve-tap tasting room inside a former garage in SoMa. It opened last October with four beers and has since expanded it lineup with a rotation of beers. We settled into the cozy taproom and upon learning that some taps were dry, ordered up five ounces of each available beer. It was nice to see that each glass was pre-wetted with chilled water before filling (I expect that it was distilled water).

We ended up with glasses of Coquette, Simcoe Galaxy IPA, Jagged Little Pale Ale, Coffee and Cigarettes and Kelly’s Blackout Stout. All were good enough to order again, but I fell in love with piney goodness of the Simcoe Galaxy. It reminded me of Skagway Brewing’s Spruce Tip Blonde, which is brewed with spruce tips. The Simcoe Galaxy is not, but the herbal, piney and almost earthy fragrance (of the Simcoe hops?) comes forward and lingers. This is an aroma-heavy beer with a light hazy yellow color and a surprising lightness. Karen was fonder of the easy-drinking Jagged Little Pale Ale, a clean almost-IPA. Coffee and Cigarettes stood out for its aggressive aroma of espresso and burnt malt backed up by a lingering smokiness.

I’m a fan of saisons/farmhouse ales, but Cellarmakers Saison Francisco wouldn’t be released for another week; however the Coquette, a grisette, was a good stand-in. This is in the style of a working-class beer: a light, slightly tart, low alcohol wheat saison about as pale as it comes. Envision sitting down and enjoy a pint after mowing that one-acre lawn on a hot summer day.

We ended up walking just over six miles this day. Nothing like enjoying good food and all that beer without gaining too much weight.


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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part 3

My last full day in the Eastern Sierra was planned around a mid-afternoon visit to Mammoth Brewing. John — a multi-year attendee of this outing — was keen on the idea, so we planned to spend the morning fishing and the afternoon…um…let’s call it “beering.”

We got an early start driving up Rock Creek Canyon to the Mosquito Flats trailhead, at about 10,000 feet. It was a typically crisp fall morning when we geared up and begin hiking, which for stretches was more akin to climbing. It stopped every once and a while to catch my breath admire the scenery.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

Looking downstream (east) as Rock Creek exits Heart Lake.

We had no particular goal, so about an hour in we departed the trail and headed to the inlet of Heart Lake, which is about a mile and quarter so up the trail. John dropped down to the trail-side of the inlet; I hiked to the opposite side of the lake. Quite a few years ago I hiked this trial, a bit further, fishing the lakes along the way. That year I caught nothing. I know now that it had been too late in the day.

This early morning, however, there was plenty of interest, particularly if I could cast my orange humpy (dry fly) within a foot or so of the reeds lining the lake. There were spots, near inlets and outlets, where I would land half a dozen brookies, most colored up for the fall spawn. Most would slowly emerge from the depths or from behind a submerge log, and either lunch at my fly or flamboyantly refuse it.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

Typical brook trout, one of many, caught in Rock Creek and its lakes.

We’d fish Rock Creek between two other lakes as we descended with the creek. I’d hook an occasional brown trout and stop often to just enjoy where I was. It was a beautiful day, with an ever-present breeze that kept things cool. The sun would be obscured every once and while by dark clouds; the almost black clouds I’ve only seen in the high country. John’s movement would mirror mine for the most part, though he did have to return to the trail to hike over a huge granite outcropping that prevented his following the edge of one lake.

Throughout the morning we met other folks, mostly hikers with a few fly fishermen among them. There was a noticeable absence of hardware or bait fishermen. While the casting is easy on the lakes, greater stealth was required in the close quarters of the creek. Most of the time I would cast downstream about ten feet, piling up some line to allow for a relatively drag-free drift for another five to ten feet. Any closer and my footfall would spook any unseen fish.

By the time we returned to the trailhead, it was time for lunch. My plan included a quick shower — I was going into town after all — and to meet John in Mammoth. We arrived just about the same time and it was easily decided to share a flight of regular beers as well as one of the seasonals. We had a good time talking with a server who worked the summer at Mammoth Brewing and would be heading back to Murphys (where The Wife and I enjoy the fruits of local winemaking), where he’s help with the grape harvest at his family’s winery. I walked out the door with a growler of Floating Rock Hefeweizen and one of Imperial Root Beer.

Both the beer and root beer (which, to my taste buds, is easily one of the best root beers around) are long gone. The fish have forgotten who I am. This just means I’ll have to return.


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the conundrum of working-class guy’s fly fishing vehicle

Ask around, do a little research and you’ll likely find that the question “what’s the best vehicle for fly fishing” is often answered “truck.”

But I’m still paying into social security so others can fly fish when they want a working stiff. I need transportation that is, first and foremost, reliable, and just as important, economical. I have to spend money on gas to make money, and the less I spend upfront the better.

During better weather, the Honda CB750 and its 45+ miles per gallon is a fine option. But it’s difficult to load the necessary fly fishing gear, and the cooler of post-fishing beer, on a motorcycle. I’ve tried.

Being a bit obsessive about conducting research on anything that will cost more than $50, I’ve been thinking — probably too much according to those around me — about the vehicle that, in about 1½ to 2 years, will replace my current 2003 Honda Accord. Since I’ll likely buy a certified pre-owned car, it’s going to be something currently on the market. My current car gets 30 to 32 mpg most of the time, and on long trips to fishing venues, I’ve seen 34+ mpg. But over 80% of my driving is commuting to and from work.

I’ve debated the merits of various models, including sport utility vehicles and all-wheel-drive cars. A hybrid is out of the question; too heavy and not enough clearance for the occasional Forest Service road. Subaru is a commonly offered up make as an all-encompassing solution. But I’ve noticed two things: most Subaru owners talk about the sportiness of the ride, the go-almost-anywhere capability, but rarely praise their cars’ mpg, and it seems to be a roll of the dice when it comes to build quality. That might be said about any make, but that’s my experience.

Despite the fact that I’ve been a Honda owner for well over 20 years, I opened up my consideration to other options, particularly now that the mpg on midsize sedans is edging up.

But, and a bit ironically, it’s fly fishing that helped firmed up my decision. At least for now.

I’ve driven my Honda on a good many, only slightly improved, Forest Service roads. Sometimes for miles, over the relatively soft dirt along the Upper Owens River, for example, or over rocks on my way to the Little Walker River, and on washboard roads in the hills behind the cabin.

Still, the doggone car doesn’t squeak or rattle.

I’m hoping this will still hold true for my next car, until that someday when I can justify a dedicated fishing truck.


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Pat and Mark’s (and Derek and Kirk’s) excellent fly fishing adventure (or, part one of a two-part payoff)

Since day one of my fly fishing career, I’ve been a proponent of hiring a guide to get the “lay of the land,” and though unlucky enough to start fly fishing later in life, I started fly fishing when I could afford to hire a few of these professional trout bums. This however, was one of those times that hiring of a guide paid multiple dividends, even after the guiding was over.

The trip in question centered around two goals: get my brother, Mark, who’d fly fished for the first time last year, on waters local to his home in Washington state, and for a second time attempt to get a close up look at west slope cutthroat trout. To make the most of my short visit, I again turned to Derek Young (Emerging Rivers Guide Services) for help. Frankly, I don’t believe it was a coincidence that I hired Derek two years ago for a float down the Yakima River with my father and that Derek was subsequently selected as the 2011 Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide of the Year. Regardless, Derek fits my expectations of a guide: someone with strong local knowledge and unfettered enthusiasm for both the fishing and the fish; the type of person with whom one can forge a connection in a mutual passion for fly fishing.

No one would have expected in the days leading up to my flight that the Seattle area would experience record-breaking temperatures. My flight into Sea-Tac International that Wednesday morning would afford my first view of the Space Needle. By the time I was standing on the arrivals sidewalk, most the sky was blue and the sun intense enough that the fleece was tucked away.

I had planned my flight to arrive at an hour late enough that beer tasting on the way to my brother’s house would be socially acceptable. We ended up at Elysian Fields for Cuban and Reuben sandwiches (and beer) after a stop at Georgetown Brewing, then visited Black Raven Brewing before unpacking and prepping for fishing the next day. That afternoon, during the usual pre-planning conversation, Derek proposed accommodating our two goals with two half days of fishing.

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Our first look up this Skykomish Tributary.

That’s how my brother and I ended up wet wading a tributary of the Skykomish River with Derek, who had invited friend and all-around good egg Kirk Wener (the man behind the Unaccomplished Angler blog and author/illustrator of the “Olive the Woolly Bugger” books). I’d met Kirk a few years ago in asking that he sign copies of the Olive books for my nephews. Kirk had mentioned the possibility of fishing together sometime on the Snoqualmie Forks, but he’s a busy man and, for lack planning on my part, it never came to pass.

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Mark working a pool on his way downstream.
(Photo copyright © 2012 Derek Young. Used with permission.)

This Skykomish tributary is one of those rivers that immediately impresses with a feeling of remoteness, even though it’s relatively nearby as the crow flies. But we’re not crows, and the desire to get more than a few steps away from the easily accessed and more heavily fished stretches required a bit of leg work. The hike up a hillside, through rain forest and over fallen trees was an effort not made easier by a big breakfast at the Sultan Bakery, but worth the reward — an uncompromised river and view. The drive to our destination on Highway 2 was under scattered clouds, most of which dissipated as the day wore on.

After laying out a game plan, Mark, Derek and I headed upstream. We left Kirk fishing a nice pool that would produce a surprise and the biggest fish of the day (though not a trout). The walk upstream was punctuated with admiration of the beauty of this place and Derek’s insight into what we’d be fishing and where. As agreed, Derek began shadowing and educating Mark while I attempted and occasionally succeeded to get a decent drift.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’d know that my introduction to fly fishing didn’t involve much in the way of dry flies. But since there would be witnesses, I wanted to man up this trip; I’d live or die by the stimulator Derek had selected. Usually I’d like to say my casting was the result of experience and practice, but sometimes I wonder if using a rod at the higher end of the spectrum not only aids one’s casting but also infuses the user with additional confidence. Whatever the case, the Helios 2 (a disguised test rod) was sweet, and more often than not the fly landed near the designated target.

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Dry flies, baby, dry flies…

There was plenty of fishy water and fish where they might be expected. With good fly placement and a bit of luck, some of those fish — small rainbows, or perhaps steelhead progeny — were found. Those who know me might call it playing to one’s strength, but I’ve increasingly come to appreciate small wild trout. On the right rod, they offer a fight that, ounce for ounce, compares favorably to any of their larger brethren, and usually are more than obliging to forgive my poor presentation of a dry fly. The fish in this part of the Skykomish River system didn’t disappoint.

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Derek offering the assist.

It was clear from my occasional glance upstream that Mark was getting the hang of casting. I was even a bit envious of his tight loops. Despite a secret hope that my initial casting instruction had served my brother well, I had to agree with Derek’s appraisal that Mark just might be a “natural.” It was about this time I noticed, about 50 yards downstream, a peculiarly heavy bend in Kirk’s rod.

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Kirk providing photographic evidence of his ‘surprise.’
(Photo copyright © 2012 Derek Young. Used with permission.)

Mark and I fished upstream, leapfrogging each other as we fished suspect pools, riffles and seams. We each landed fish. There was no real competition between us this day, but if there was, it’s clear that Mark’s enjoyment and wonder trumped the number of fish I landed. Then again, I did manage that one really nice fish.

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That nice fish.

The adventure continues next week…


More photos:
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